The eye of Cyclone Gabrielle tracked very close to Te Hauturu-o-Toi LIttle Barrier Island in February 2023. Department of Conservation Ranger Richard Walles recounts the remarkable experience.

“We always watch the forecast closely out here and we had received the warnings beforehand,” says Richard Walle, Department of Conservation Ranger who has lived on the island for ten years with wife Leigh Joyce who is an ecologist with expertise in Kakapo, son Liam (18) and his daughter Mahina (20) who has now left the island to go to university. .

Weather conditions are very important to anyone living in a remote location like Hauturu. He explains that he uses boats to access the northern part of the island to check traplines, and that supply lines to the island for food and necessities are entirely dependent on wind and sea conditions. Even at the best of times landings can be difficult.

Therefore he always has a close eye on the forecast. 

“We never want to leave without knowing we can get back safely.”

 

 Cyclone Gabrielle was forecast ten days before it arrived. “Cyclones are hard to predict but this one went where they said it would,” he says.

That gave the family time to prepare, securing anything that could be blown away, and objects on the shoreline. 

The cyclone moved over Colville Channel, bringing big ocean swells and immense wind from the south-east. “The biggest wind, gusting up to 180kph in Colville, coincided with high tide. We were very close to the centre of the cyclone,”

The family focused on staying safe indoors out of harm’s way. “We have a stream running near the house. We checked it for flash flooding. Sometimes boulders in it can move and growl, but we couldn’t hear that, which was a good sign.” 

However the combined force of wind and rain brought numerous trees down across the island. “There was a lot of noise, bangs and cracking.” 

 

 

Richard says that the regenerating bush was the worst hit: trees that grew tall and fast were vulnerable to the force of the wind. The mature, untouched bush had very little damage. 

“The canopy has its layer and everything is in place looking after each other,” he explains. 

There were numerous coastal slips. Richard said that the wind, combined with  saturated ground from weeks of rain leading up to the cyclone, was enough to work many large pohutukawa loose from their clifftop homes. 

“The wind yanked and leveraged the trees and the clifftop edges came down around the island.”

Fortunately damage to the island’s few buildings and structures was minimal: despite the fact that ‘boulders bigger than rugby balls’ landed up against the boat shed, all that was lost was a little clearlight.  The house remained intact. 

 “We were lucky, there was no damage to buildings, just a clean up job. It took a day to clean up the driftwood and the debris.” Logjams were also removed from the boat ramp with a chainsaw, restoring access to the island and we are replacing sentry stations and tunnels that were washed away or disappeared in slips and clearing fallen trees of tracks.”

After ten years Richard, who describes himself as a carpenter by trade but an environmentalist by passion,  still loves living on the island.

 “What keeps me here is its pristine, beautiful nature. I feel like part of keeping it that way. It’s a combination of loving being here and also giving back to it, to something I believe in.” 

 

Cyclone Gabrielle tracking over Hauturu, visualised here on metvuw.com

 

 



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